I’ve gamed on the best graphics cards for the past two years. Here’s what I’ve learned.

As we get closer to the end of this graphics card generation, there is a lot of excitement around what comes next for Nvidia and AMD. I’m certainly one of those people who is eager to see what Team Green and Team Red have in store, especially if they can do more to prioritize energy efficiency and value for the customer rather than go all in on power and performance that no one – even the planet – can afford.

That said, I’ve been in a rather privileged position relative to most people in that I’ve actually been able to game on pretty much every current-gen graphics card for work, and so I’ve learned a thing or two about the current state of the market for the best graphics cards, and where the technology needs to go in the next generation.

Ray tracing is a fascinating technology that has huge potential to create stunning life-like scenes by mimicking the way our eyes actually perceive light, but boy howdy is it computationally expensive.

The number of calculations required to realistically light a scene in real time are enormous, and are why real-time ray tracing was long considered practically impossible on consumer grade hardware. That is, of course, until Nvidia releasing its Turing architecture with the GeForce RTX 2000-series graphics cards.

As the first generation of consumer graphics cards with real time ray tracing, it is understandable that it was a neat experimental feature, but you really couldn’t do much with it while playing without absolutely cratering your frame rate. This is still true, even as we wrap up the Nvidia Ampere generation of cards.

These cards are better able to handle real time ray tracing, especially at lower resolutions, but you will still need to make a compromise between resolution and ray tracing. For example, there is no graphics card that can effectively ray trace a scene at native 4K resolution that isn’t a complete slideshow other than the RTX 3090 Ti, which is able to ray trace Cyberpunk 2077 at about 24 fps with ray tracing turned on.

AMD, meanwhile, is on its first generation of graphics card hardware with real time ray tracing, and it’s performance is definitely where Nvidia Turing cards more or less were when it came to ray tracing performance, which is to say not awful, but still definitely first-gen tech.